Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Treasures of Vatican II
Our Compass for the Future
I once mentioned Vatican II in class and a student in the back raised his
hand to ask, Why dont they call it Vatican One, like Air Force One? This
sincere undergraduate thought I was talking about the popes airplane. When I began
to explain that Vatican II was a worldwide gathering of Catholic bishops that took place
in the early 1960s, his eyes glazed over as he muttered,
The Sixties? Thats ancient history!
The exchange reminded me of my first encounter with the Second Vatican Council
years ago. As a student myself, I was forced to read from a thick little paperback with
a red cover called The Documents of Vatican II. My classmates and I at St. Mary
High School complained that the passages were so long, so hard to follow, so boring. We
didnt appreciate then that this little book was the result of a truly Spirit-filled,
groundbreaking event. We didnt know that the ideas contained within it were once
radical or that they were shaping our Church in profound ways. It all seemed to useven
just a few years after the Councillike ancient history.
Forty years have now passed since the last of the 16 documents of Vatican
II were signed and sent out to the Church. What effect have they had? What value do they
still have for us today? In closing out the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II spoke
of the documents of Vatican II as a great treasure for the Church, a sentiment recently
repeated by Pope Benedict XVI. But for some of us, this treasure may still be buried, waiting
to be uncovered. This Update is meant to be a kind of treasure map, leading those
with an adventurous spirit to discover or rediscover the riches hidden in the Councils
That was then, this is now
Vatican II ended in 1965. And for a while afterwards, everybody commented
on how much the Church was changinghow the years after the Council seemed so different
from the years before it. For those who loved all the newness and energy sparked by the
Council, their refrain was: That was then, this is now. The Mass in Latin,
clericalism, a closed Catholic ghetto was then, part of our past, described as
pre-Vatican II. Participation in liturgy, parish collaboration, an openness
to the world is now, part of our future,
Today the focus has shifted. Now the interesting comparison is not so much
between the pre-Vatican II period and the post-Vatican II period. Instead, the interesting
comparison is between the time of the Council and our own time. So much has changed in
the past 40 years. When those 2,500 bishops gathered in Rome in the early 1960s, the Western
world was in the midst of the Cold War, facing Communism and the threat of all-out nuclear
war. At the same time, the 60s were about to explodewith its shock waves of student
demonstrations, womens liberation, civil rights and anti-war activism. In the midst
of all of this, the Church took up the challenge of updating its enormous institutionsinstitutions
run by a huge corps of clergy and religious.
Today, it is not the Cold War but an open-ended War on Terror that shakes
our security. Communism and the Bomb have been pushed aside by militant fundamentalism
and the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The social movements of the 60s have been
replaced by complicated questions about cloning, stem-cell research and globalization.
Now the institutions of the Church are struggling to survive with fewer and fewer priests
to run parishes and with resourcesand truststrained by the sexual-abuse crisis.
And yet, at the same time, lay ministries are flourishing, Catholic colleges are expanding,
and parish communities are more active than ever in planning their worship, sharing their
faith and reaching out in service to their neighbors in need.
We might be surprised at how few of the issues that seem so important to
us today are found in the documents of Vatican II. We might be tempted to say, That
was then, this is now, and leave the Council texts behind. What makes these documents
relevant? What justifies John Paul IIs claim that with the passing of the years,
the Council documents have lost nothing of their value or brilliance?
Behind the popes confidence, I think, was his sense that Vatican II
offered large principles with lasting value. When we reflect on these larger themes, we
see that there is virtually no area of Church life today that is not affected by the Council.
If youve ever taken part in a Bible study, witnessed the Easter Vigil liturgy, served
on a parish council or as a eucharistic minister, attended a non-Catholic worship service,
reflected on politics in light of your faith, read about a statement from the bishops conference,
picked up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, volunteered for a parish service
project, been to a funeral or skimmed a Catholic Updateif youve done
any of these things, youve experienced the effects of the Second Vatican Council.
The themes of the Council are what help explain to us as a Church where we are today. And,
more important, they inspire us to where we can be tomorrow.
More than a thick little book
Vatican II was an event, a grace-filled moment in the life of the Church.
An aging Pope John XXIII caught everyone by surprise when he announced his plans to hold
a council. And he surprised everyone again with his opening speech on October 11, 1962.
There he publicly disagreed with those prophets of gloom around him who saw
in the modern world only prevarication and ruin. Instead, Pope John believed,
God is moving humanity to a new order of human relations. The Church needs aggiornamentoupdatingnot
because the Church feels threatened, but because of its great desire to share the joy of
Christ. The pope pointed toward the renewal of the Church with the beautiful words, It
is now only dawn.
By the time the Second Vatican Council closed on December 8, 1965, it had
seen two popes (John XXIII died on June 3, 1963; Pope Paul VI continued the Council), four
sessions (meeting in the autumn months from 1962 to 1965), and 168 general congregations,
or daily meetings. Over 2,500 bishops and other Church leaders took part, 2,212 speeches
were delivered, more than 4,300 additional comments were submitted in writing, and over
1.5 million ballotsdeciding everything from formal approval of final documents to
individual words in early draftswere cast. The end result was 16 documents103,014
words in Latin, 600 pages in the latest English translation
Behind these final documents exist a process and a spirit of renewal as important
as the texts themselves. Spirit and letter go together. Thus as important as Vatican IIs
16 documents are, they can never be separated from the spirit of the Councila spirit
of openness to the world and renewal for the Church, a spirit of faithfulness to the past
and hope for the future, a spirit, above all, of joy in Christ.
The four constitutions
Of the 16 documents promulgated at Vatican II, four are so foundational
that they are designated constitutions.
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The very first topic the bishops
took up at the Council was liturgy. They did so becauseof all the draft documents
prepared in advancethe one on the liturgy was in the best shape. Many of the ideas
for reforming the liturgy had been in the air for some time. Vatican II pulled these ideas
together and pushed them forward in a dramatic way.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy boldly declares that the liturgy is
the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the source from
which all its power flows
(#10). But the liturgy cant be the source and summit if people dont participate
in it. Thus the liturgy is to be reformed so as to encourage the full, conscious,
and active participation of all the faithful (#14).
This call to active participation runs throughout the Constitution,
guiding its many proposals. In order for people to participate, the liturgy must be easily
understood. Vernacular languages should be allowed, rituals should be simplified and local
adaptation should be encouraged. In parishes today, every ritual from Baptism to burial
has been revised with this one driving concern in mind: that we all actively take part
in what God is doing here.
In our own day, as we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Vatican IIs
conclusion, Catholics worldwide celebrated a
Year of the Eucharist as a way to nurture this spirit of engagement with the
source and summit of our faith.
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. After the bishops debated
liturgy, they turned to revelation. Unlike the draft on liturgy, the prepared draft on
revelation was in poor shape. For a document on the Bible, its language was surprisingly
un-biblical, using instead technical terms and philosophical concepts. Moreover, the draft
had a very negative tone. Even though it recommended reading the Bible, the text was so
full of warnings and cautions that it gave the impression that it was better, in the end,
not even to bother.
Thanks in part to the intervention of John XXIII, this draft was sent back
to committee for a complete rewrite. The final text of the Constitution speaks of
revelation as, above all, a personal interaction between God and humanity:
By this revelation, then, the invisible God, from the fullness of love, addresses
men and women as his friends, and lives among them, in order to invite and receive them
into his own company (#2). Revelation is not just words about God, it is a living
relationship with God.
The Constitution recognizes that there is growth in our understanding
of revelation. And the whole community has a role to play in handing on the tradition (#8).
The document acknowledges the contributions of Scripture scholars, and points out that
Bible passages must be interpreted according to the historical context and literary genres
in which they were written. Finally, with great effect on subsequent Church life, the Constitution enthusiastically
encourages all the faithful to read the Bible and apply it to their daily lives.
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. While the debates on liturgy
and revelation occupied most of the time at the Councils first session (1962), the
document on the Church took up most of the second session (1963). The Dogmatic Constitution
on the Church is in many ways the crowning achievement of Vatican II. In it, the Council
addressed the nature of the Church itself: Who do we say we are?
Before Vatican II, Catholics might have imagined the Church as something
to which they simply belonged.
The Church then was equated with its structures, its institutions, its hierarchy.
But we dont belong to the Church; we are the Church. The first draft of the Constitution reflected
the pre-conciliar mentality. But through successive drafts, revisions were made to affirm
more clearly that the Church is not first an institution; it is first of all a mystery
bound up in the love of God, a people made one by the unity of the Father, the Son,
and the holy Spirit (#4). The Church is not first the clergy; it is first of all
the whole people of God. In fact, the most famous editorial decision of the whole Council
was the decision to insert into the Constitution on the Church a chapterchapter
two on the People of Godbefore the chapter on the hierarchy. The arrangement reflects
the theology that we are all the People of God, sharing a oneness and a baptismal equality
that precedes the distinctions among different roles in the community.
The People of God theme guides the whole document. The Constitution calls
for an increase in shared authority, or collegiality, among the pope and bishops (ch. 3).
It claims that the laity share fully in the mission of the Church, a claim that has fostered
the explosive growth of lay ministries since Vatican II (ch. 4). And the documents
confidence that everyone in the Church is called to holiness (ch. 5) is balanced by its
caution that the Church is a pilgrim people, still on the way to the reign of God (ch.
7). Thus, while the outstanding models of holiness we see around us (whether saintly popes
or struggling parents) are a sign of the Kingdom
already arrived, the tragic failures within our Church (such as the sexual
abuse of children, discrimination, or indifference) painfully point out the
not yet reality of our earthly existence.
Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Some of the
greatest debates of the third (1964) and fourth (1965) sessions of Vatican II were sparked
by the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The Pastoral
Constitution was the only document of the final 16 that was born during the Council.
Near the end of the first session, Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens of Belgium addressed his
fellow bishops, urging them not just to examine the Church in and of itself. The Council
must also examine the Church in relationship to the world at large. This intervention,
fully supported by Pope John XXIII, led to the composition of an entirely new document.
The Church in the Modern World begins not with the Bible, liturgy
or doctrine. It begins, in its preface, with the world, with its joys and hopes, grief
and anguish. And it underlines the importance of reading the signs of the times in
order that the Church might respond to the world in which we live (see #4). The document
is addressed to all people and expresses hope for dialoguea dialogue made possible
by focusing on the human person. What inspires human hopes? What threatens human life?
How is human dignity fostered? What do human communities need? What can human society provide?
These are questions that launch a conversation.
The Church offers its own responsea response rooted in faithbut
it also listens, engaging the world in dialogue and participating in building up the human
family. The five specific areas of concern identified in the Pastoral Constitution remain
as important today as they were in 1965: 1) marriage and family, 2) culture, 3) socio-economic
life, 4) politics and 5) peace.
Send in the Spirit
The Councils other documents spell out and apply many of the principles
articulated in these four constitutions. Some of these have been more significant than
others. But behind them all move the spirit of the Council and the Spirit of Christthe
Spirit who calls all believers to participate actively in the life of faith, who reminds
us of Gods desire for a personal relationship with humanity, who holds the Church
together as the People of God, and who pushes us out into the world to serve.
In his hope-filled vision for the Year 2000, Pope John Paul II called the
Second Vatican Council the great grace of the 20th century and the sure compass for the
century now beginning.
And so I return to that thick little paperback now sitting on my bookshelf,
marked up with my student scribblings from St. Marys, its cover torn and its pages
brittle. It remains a treasure for me. And its documents remain a treasure for the Church,
words that inspire and point us into the new millennium.
Next: The Rapture (by Michael Guinan, O.F.M.)